Angela Ruggiero has an impressive resume, on or off the ice. The Hockey Hall of Famer helped bring home gold for the US in 1998 at the first-ever women’s hockey event at the Olympics, then medaled three more times in subsequent games. She played at the national level for a record-breaking 16 years before attending Harvard Business School and taking on positions on sports boards, including the executive committee of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and as Chief Strategy Officer in Los Angeles’ winning bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

Now, Ruggiero is assembling a new team for her startup, the Sports Innovation Lab, which helps clients and partners such as Google, Verizon, and the NBA navigate the intersection of sports and technology. Based in Boston at WeWork 200 Portland, Ruggiero shared which hockey skills help her as an entrepreneur and what she’ll be looking out for at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

What did it feel like to win Olympic Gold?

It’s a pretty amazing feeling. To actualize your dreams in any capacity is amazing. We’d won world championships before, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that winning at the Olympics was so much bigger than myself, my team, my sport, my country. When you’re in the Olympics, you inspire people you’ve never met. They’re proud of you or sign up for hockey the next day.

[As an athlete,] you’re just focused on your sport, but there are all these bigger implications. We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of the gold medal, and that was the first time women’s hockey was in the Olympics. Having women on a visible platform in sports sends a strong message to society.

Angela Ruggiero speaks at the 2017 Sports Business Awards in New York City.

What are your advantages from being an elite athlete that you harness in your work today?

Being a team player is first. I’m a big believer in the team. Everyone has different responsibilities, but everyone’s important. Having direction and purpose is super important in people’s lives. In business, trying to define that is important.

I competed 16 years at the national level, more than any other player, which is something I’m proud of. To stay at that level required discipline but also a lot of introspection, being realistic about strengths and weaknesses. It’s such a great analogy for business.

“I competed 16 years at the national level. To stay at that level required discipline but also a lot of introspection.”

How did you make the leap from athlete to entrepreneur?

One of the reasons I started the Sports Innovation Lab was all the experience I had on the sports organization boards, including the IOC. I was also the Chief Strategy Officer for the Los Angeles 2024 bid, which we won in September.

My Co-founder Josh Walker having a background at [leading tech advisory firm] Forrester Research and me having a background in the sports industry, we were figuring out what value we wanted to give to clients, and that formed what we did.

Tech is disrupting sports. We describe ourselves as technology-powered services focused on the intersection of sports and tech. We use our tech to quickly understand the market. It aggregates the info that no single analyst can do, constantly pulling different data streams and in real time. We’re trying to do a Forrester inside sports, using software to answer questions we get from clients.

[For example,] as leagues are coming up with wearable strategies, they want to know which one should they think about using. Our software can determine what these companies can and can’t do, whether you’re making a strategic investment or recommendations to players in the league.

Besides wearables, what are the new trends shaping the future of sports?

[The big trends we’re looking at are] smart venues, immersive media, new ways to watch sports outside of linear TV, and next-generation sponsorship, where technology is allowing fans to engage in new ways.

Angela Ruggiero played ice hockey at the national level for 16 years.

How are you building your team?

It starts with my relationship with my co-founder and having an enormous amount of trust and respect for him and leveraging him. Then as we set out with our plan, we’re trying to find people that share our values, some of the intangibles. It comes down to experience and a thorough vetting process.

We have a smaller team relative to what we’re doing—12 full time, some part-time, some interns. We put on a massive show at CES [the Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas] to create the global destination for sports technology. [At CES,] a lot of people couldn’t believe how small we are. But it’s a testament to our team: Everyone’s willing to pitch in and be flexible because it will take everyone to be successful.

Everyone’s willing to pitch in and be flexible because it will take everyone to be successful.

You’re creating a lab at WeWork 200 Portland where different companies working on similar topics in sports tech can come work in the same space. What inspired that?

At CES you feel energy, you meet people, you feel energized. We want that same feeling year-round with our Sports Innovation Lab, [which will bring together] emerging companies as well as established brands who want to live and breathe innovation. We think partnerships and collaborations could come from working alongside each other.

We have 75 desks available and over 3,000 companies in our database, and that’s just technology companies. That’s not every global sponsor. The market is huge for who we’re thinking about bringing into this space. Sports tech is super broad—it’s all the media companies, all the venues, all the sponsors interacting in digital ways. Seventy-five is tiny. We should be in London, New York, Beijing, Paris.

What feelings come up when you watch Olympic hockey games now?

I’ll be there at the games in Pyeongchang as part of the exec board of the IOC. Part of my job is to give medals, and my name’s in the hat for the hockey games. I’m nostalgic but super proud of the young women and men competing at the Olympic Games.

I’ll also be on the ground talking with sponsors and broadcasters and athletes—all the constituents who leverage technology—and listening to how they’re using it. I’ll put together some live streaming discussions for members at the lab in Boston to talk about what I’m seeing in the games. My first hat is the IOC hat, but I’ll make sure I’m taking notes and reporting back on what I’m seeing. I’ll nerd out a bit and study what tech is going on.

 

Photos courtesy of Sports Innovation Lab.

When Lisa Ling was a little girl, she wanted to be Marcia Brady. Lisa and her younger sister, Laura, would pretend they were the Brady Bunch—Laura as Jan or Cindy, their grandmother as Alice. “The television was always on in my house,” the journalist and author told the audience of WeWork employees at the “Student for Life” panel discussion at the company’s recent Global Summit in Los Angeles. “It was my favorite babysitter. I had fantasies about being on TV.”

The fantasies that took root in childhood only grew she did. At 16, she landed a hosting gig at a local teen magazine show called Scratch. “Worst name ever,” Ling says with a laugh. At 18, she was hired as a reporter at Channel One News, broadcast in schools nationwide. While at Channel One, she covered drug wars in South America, globalization in China and India, and democracy in Iran.

No longer a little girl enthralled by the glamour of television, Lisa developed a love of reporting. “I wanted to communicate stories,” she says. Her inspiration? Connie Chung. “She was the only Asian person on a national stage, and to me, she symbolized all that is elegant and graceful on TV,” Ling says. “So I set out to have a career like Connie’s.”

“I challenge myself to meet someone new every day and interact with someone entirely different,” says Lisa Ling.

While a student at the University of Southern California, she kept missing classes to go on assignments for Channel One. “I realized I was getting a better education doing what I was doing because I had a unique opportunity to be out in the world,” she says. “For a kid who didn’t have the resources to travel, this was the best education conceivable. I became a smarter person, but really, I became a better person.”

Ling recalls Channel One sending her to cover the civil war in Afghanistan, a country she couldn’t identify on the map, “and most adults couldn’t identify either.” She was just 21 years old, traveling with the Red Cross to Jalalabad. When they landed, they were immediately surrounded by young boys carrying weapons “that were quite literally larger than they were,” she recalls. When she asked how old they were, the local guide responded, “They do not know, but if you ask them how to operate an RPG or bazooka, they know.” This story had the most profound impact on Ling and her career. “That moment in Afghanistan, I realized this is what I should be doing.”

Ling’s career has taken her from Afghanistan to Iraq and even helped her diplomatically fight for her sister Laura’s safe return from the North Korean government. When asked about Laura and her colleague Euna Lee’s imprisonment in North Korea in 2009, she remembers the total fear her family felt—and the delicate way they needed to handle the request for the women’s release. “Never once did we make any accusations on what we believed,” she explains. “It was all about allowing the North Korean government to save face.”

Despite her success, Ling acknowledges there is “a tremendous amount of gender bias in the workplace. That is really undeniable.” While her show, This Is Life with Lisa Ling, has been on CNN for six seasons, she had to fight for it get renewed, and suspected it might have been because “maybe I’m not white and male enough.” Yet everything she’s been exposed to has compelled her to continue telling stories.

“There’s so much out there to acquaint oneself with,” says Ling, who sees herself as a student for life, seeking out new people and experiences every day. “I challenge myself to meet someone new every day and interact with someone entirely different,” she explains, encouraging others to do the same. “You’ll become more open-minded, smarter, and ultimately better.”

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In this column, we’ll delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions over ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Q: I was advising a young founder (20-something) on how to best market his new app. We talked about how his target market probably spans generations. In referring to my peers (consumers over 50), he said, “Elderly people may not be as comfortable with technology.” Not only was I shocked, but I was also angry. Although some of my peers are challenged by technology, “elderly” implies frail, over-the-hill, and out-of-touch. I would never think to call his peers “kids.” How do you address ageism and stereotypes in the workplace without sounding like a cranky old crone?

As another person who is over 40, I find the fastest way to come off as a cranky old crone is to yell angrily at young people. They never take it the right way! Which is not to say that it’s not merited, sometimes.

I agree that “elderly” has some unfortunate negative connotations, perhaps because we live in such a youth-focused society that anything described as anything less than, well, young seems to carry with it the stench of mothballs. Is there even a clear, agreed-upon sense of what the word means? Merriam-Webster defines “elderly” as “rather old, especially: being past middle age” (which, what is that, even? 45? 55? 90?) and “old-fashioned” (fair, perhaps, but that could apply to any young-in-years hipster who insists on listening to vinyl on a vintage hi-fi and scoops up a portable typewriter at the local flea). The dictionary’s concluding attempt: “of, relating to, or characteristic of later life or elderly persons.” “Elderly” may be elderly, but what is elderly?

Personally, I like specifics, and feel that it’s never wrong to recommend speaking with accuracy: What’s the actual age being discussed? There is a huge difference between 45 and 90—generations, even. No group of people should be lumped together and assumed to be a certain way. We are all unique and weird and challenging and human—and for your founder’s purposes, we are all potential customers.

That’s where you make your point. Ask him what “elderly” means to him, and if, as a businessperson, there might be a better way to put it rather than discounting an ever-growing demographic of possible customers. You might say: ”‘Elderly’ doesn’t sit right with a lot of people who are 50 or over. I’d consider another way of describing this age group or groups that’s going to be much more helpful to your business. What age or ages are we really talking about? And why do you think that so many of them are bad at technology? Is there an opportunity for marketing your app?”

Ask him if he’s ever dealt with age discrimination, and how that felt. Making a joke in such moments also usually goes down better than rage: Tell him it’s quite funny that he sees your (and, yeah, make it personal! Personal is how we get our point across!) age group as elderly, because they’d see him as a kid—yet neither of those perceptions are correct, are they? Finally, you could note that he’s turned to you, who fits in the demographic he has broadly misconstrued, to instruct him. Clearly, his perceptions of the so-called elderly aren’t in keeping with what he actually knows to be true: that people at least twice the age of 25 can bring expertise, experience, and deep knowledge to a situation.

The way we start speaking differently about age is by speaking differently about age: not hiding it, but calmly and surely pointing out the problem when it comes up, regularly proving people who underestimate generations older than they are that they’re wrong, and continuing to have those real, honest, personal conversations as often as necessary while remaining professional about it. You can do this. You have the benefit of not only age but also wisdom. And keep in mind that everything, including the very app this founder hopes to sell, will someday age, wither on the vine, and die. If that makes you feel any better?

Q: I just moved to New York City from Texas and started working for my godfather’s company. They gave me the “good” cubicle right outside my boss’s office. After I was there for a week, my boss’s gopher handed me a candy bowl and informed me that the woman before me always had a bowl of candy, and I needed to uphold the tradition. So I did. The office goes through the bowl in a day or less. It’s starting to really add up financially. If the bowl is empty, my boss will knock on my desk and tell me the bowl needs to be filled … and he won’t give me my instructions for the day on what to do. If it’s full, he’ll stop and talk and tell me how much he likes the candy and then give me my instructions for the day. This small bowl has become a huge issue. Much of the office is on a Weight Watchers plan, and everyone participating comes to talk to me about the candy bowl and what it’s doing to their diet. This situation is distracting from my work and costing me too much money! What do I do?

You’ve heard of Sisyphus, perhaps? According to Greek legend, because of a variety of bad behaviors in life, he was condemned in Hades to eternally roll a heavy stone up a hill. It would, of course, roll down; he’d then have to push it back up again. This candy bowl is your Sisyphus moment. Luckily, you’re not in hell; it just feels like it. And it’s time to let the candy bowl roll down the hill.

Address it all calmly and clearly, in person, with your boss. “The candy bowl is distracting from my work and causing problems with coworkers who are on diets, and I’m spending too much time and money thinking about it. I am no longer going to manage a candy bowl.” Hold firm to that. If he protests, tell him simply that you will no longer be able to keep up with tradition in this case, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. If he refuses to give you work because of it, spend that time looking for another job.

There’s another renegade move up your sleeve. Let the candy bowl “disappear” (i.e., sequester it away in your desk, or put it in the back of a kitchen cabinet, or hand it right back to the person who gave it to you). If someone asks where it’s gone, say, “I have no idea what happened to that” or “I’m not doing that anymore.” (It was never your business to have to deal with it in the first place!) This may seem cowardly or passive-aggressive, but let the candy bowl be someone else’s problem for a while. Shrug it off, do your job, and either start looking for a new job or stick around and avoid all candy bowls forevermore. Whatever you do, get out of Hades.

Q: Is it ever OK to trim your nails at work? Not at my desk, of course, but maybe a bathroom stall?

Nope, nope, nope. Don’t even try it—I can hear you click-click-clicking in my nightmares. Some things in life are meant to be done only at home, or in the nail salon.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard, but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything: creator@wework.com.

Illustration by Jiaqi Wang

 

Nicola Piercy may have co-founded a clothing label, but that doesn’t mean she has a particularly keen eye for fashion. “I don’t weigh in on the designs,” she says, “apart from me going, ‘Oh my God, really? That’s a horrible color!’” To which her business partner, Katie Lopes, usually responds, “Trust me. It’s cool.”

The two founded Stripe + Stare, a U.K.-based brand that sells striped designs like Bretons and knickers (aka underwear), in August 2017, with a £70,000 ($90,000) investment from one of Lopes’s fashion-industry contacts. (Lopes owned a designer boutique, Austique, for more than a decade.) “She’s the creative and sales, and I’m the so-called sensible person,” Piercy says. “I do all the finances, purchase orders, sales analysis, etc. It’s a good balance.”

Piercy had just left her job as managing director of a cooking school in London when Lopes approached her about starting the business. They’d collaborated a decade prior at Austique, where Piercy helped out with operations for a bit, so “it was a pretty easy decision,” she says. “We make a very good team.”

With their financing secured (“The investor had come to Lopes a couple years ago and said, ‘If you ever have a business idea, I’d be interested in backing you,’” Piercy explains), they hired design firms to create their logo and website. The goal was to launch their debut collection at Spirit of Christmas, one of the biggest Christmas shows in London, at the end of October 2017.

“It was total chaos,” Piercy says. But they got the collection done in time, and even managed to follow the show with two more.

It helped that Lopes had been working with a manufacturer in China since her Austique days, using modal, a sustainable fabric made from beechwood trees, to develop the perfect pair of buttery-soft knickers. “When she was running her shop, everyone said, ‘You’ve gotta get the brand Hanky Panky in,’” Piercy tells it, in reference to the lingerie line. “And then she was amazed at these women who came in and bought armfuls of them at £20 a pair.”

Stripe + Stare co-founder Nicola Piercy and her puppy take a break at London’s WeWork 184 Shepherd’s Bush Rd.

So Lopes set out to make her own knicker equivalent. Now her skivvies, which have been tweaked over the years, are the company’s best-selling items, available in more than 30 boutique locations across the UK, U.S., and Germany, and on Shopbop.

“The knickers are what everyone gets excited about at all the shows,” Piercy, a member at WeWork 184 Shepherd’s Bush Rd in London, says. “The moment anyone feels them it’s like, ‘Oh my god, this fabric is insane!’” This year, Piercy and Lopes started manufacturing all of their products, with the exception of cashmere sweaters, using modal. “It is the best fabric,” she says. “So why use anything else?

Below, Piercy shares the details of a recent workweek.

Monday

7 a.m. I get up to let out my 4-month-old puppy, Penfold (she’s named after the wine). Shower, change, have a cup of tea, and walk out the door.

7:45 a.m. Head to Ravenscourt Park to take Penfold for a walk. I usually listen to podcasts such as Holly & Co or Business of Fashion—I always learn something hearing other entrepreneurs’ stories.

8:45 a.m. Arrive at WeWork, grab a coffee and some breakfast (fruit and cereal), and head to my desk.

9-10 a.m. Catch up on email.

10 a.m. Call with Katie. Although we speak about 10 times a day, this is our “official” time to go over things. We talk about what happened last week, what’s happening this week, sales targets, financials, production, PR, and marketing.

11 a.m. Emails. We raised £130,000 before Christmas by going directly to happy customers. Now I’m able to email all the shareholders their share certificates.

We’re using the service SeedLegals for the process, which saved us thousands of pounds and the headache of dealing with lawyers. So many new platforms like Xero (accounting), Vend (point of sale), and Shopify (e-commerce) make our lives easier.

12:30 p.m. Walk Penfold and grab some lunch from the salad bar downstairs.

1-2 p.m. Chase any of our unpaid accounts, reconcile money, pay bills. We have an accountant, but I do this day-to-day so I have a tight handle on everything at all times.

2-3 p.m. Go through all of our sales reports and learn that we’ve sold 13,000 pairs of knickers so far this year!

3 p.m. Penfold gets fidgety, so I decide to head home and carry on from there.

5 p.m. Katie arrives from Devon, where our head office and warehouse are based, and where she lives. She comes up to London every couple of weeks, and I go down every few months. The distance (a 4.5-hour drive) is not the most convenient, but cloud systems make it manageable—and everything is cheaper there.

5-10 p.m. We prepare for a big meeting we have tomorrow with Selfridges [a high-end UK department store]. Knickers and clothes are strewn all over the place as we try to assemble them into sensible piles. We need to be able to pull them out of the bag in order, labeled, and looking great at our meeting with the buyer.

In December, we sent some knickers to Selfridges creative director Alannah Weston, and her office called us immediately asking us to come and meet the buying team. We told them we wouldn’t have our collection for the year until the end of January, so we’ve been working hard on the sample collection for months. Fingers crossed!

Tuesday

8:45 a.m. After taking Penfold for a long walk, arrive back home and smarten myself up. Katie and I jump on the tube and head into town.

9:45 a.m. Arrive at Selfridges HQ ready to meet Rosie from the Body Studio team, which does lingerie, sleepwear, and more. To win Selfridges as a wholesale account would be a big deal. It would place us amongst the great brands.

10-11 a.m. Have a great meeting with Rosie. She loves everything and completely gets the brand. You need all your numbers at your fingertips in these meetings. The product makes up 50 percent of the pitch, and then the margin, terms of trade, promotional strategy, etc. make up the other 50 percent.

Promotion-strategy-wise, if I let Katie have her way, Gigi Hadid would front our next campaign. So I have to keep tight control [of the budget]. We need to spend on promotion without breaking the bank.

“The knickers are what everyone gets excited about,” says Stripe + Stare co-founder Nicola Piercy.

11:15 a.m.-12 p.m. Meet Alannah Weston’s executive assistant, Charlotte, who takes us on a tour of the beautiful offices.

12-3 p.m. After stopping by my house to pick up Penfold, I meet with Ruth at Indian Summer, a top independent store in London. She’s been buying from us since the beginning, so it’s more a lovely chat and a gossip over clothes and knickers. Great to be in these meetings—you get feedback and find out your bestsellers.

4-5 p.m. Head to The Cross in Notting Hill, to show them the new collection. It’s a London institution, so it’s a real badge of honor to be stocked here.

6 p.m. Get home exhausted but elated. It’s the first day we’ve shown the new collection, and it’s gone down really well. We’re on a high.

7 p.m. We’re both talked out so we go and see the movie The Favourite to spend a couple of hours not discussing work.

Wednesday

9 a.m. Get home after a yoga class, shower, and send a few emails before heading out the door.

9:30-11:30 a.m. Head into town to meet with the gynecological-cancer charity Lady Garden. We did a bespoke box of knickers with them last year and donated £5 of every box to them. This meeting is to catch up on sales figures, discuss where we could sell the rest of the stock, and talk about doing a new box this year.

11:45 a.m. Grab a quick lunch with my cousin-in-law.

1-6 p.m. Walk Penfold in the park and then write our newsletters for the week, letting our followers know about new stock and promotions.

7:30 p.m. Host a friend for supper.

Thursday

7:30 a.m. Penfold gets picked up for doggy day care and a run-around in the country.

8:45 a.m. Attend an event at Google’s offices titled “How Will Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Affect Retail Marketers?” It’s an amazing presentation from the team at Google and some other industry experts.

2 p.m. Meet Robin Howard, who has just come on board as our chairman. We met him through Julian Granville, the chairman of the catalog company Boden. We initially went to Julian for investment, and he couldn’t invest because it would have been a conflict, but he offered to go to regular breakfasts with us and be our unofficial adviser. So when we needed a chairman, he suggested Robin, who was a huge success at Boden for 25 years.

So we met with Robin last year and just clicked. He’s going to invest, but he wanted to see how we work together first. He’s put loads of tasks together for us, like books to read. It’s fantastic to have someone so experienced help us step back and look at the bigger picture, strategy, and what is and isn’t working.

5 p.m. Meet with Chloe Loves to Shop to discuss a Valentine’s Day promotion. It’s so important to work with influencers who enhance your brand. She has 60,000 followers who are incredibly engaged. When she first posted about us, our sales went berserk. We were on [a major influencer’s] Instagram Stories recently, with millions of followers, and we got barely anything from it. So you’ve got to find the people with the right engagement.

7.30 p.m. Walk to the local pub for supper with friends.

Friday

9 a.m. Head into WeWork with Penfold after a walk in the park.

9:30-10 a.m. Catch up with a merchandising agency that’s helping us with a new display concept. The idea is to create a beechwood tree where we can hang our knickers and packaging—that way people can instantly see the provenance of the fabric. It will be fantastic to take to events.

10 a.m. Receive an email from Selfridges saying they love our products and we should receive a purchase order next week!!! BEST NEWS EVER!!! They want to launch ASAP, so there is going to be a lot to plan, from a launch event to ensuring the product comes in on time.

11 a.m. Get a call from Katie, who is having a meltdown—our part-time warehouse manager is on holiday and Katie cannot cope with all the orders coming in from Instagram coverage we’ve gotten from Dolly Alderton. Exciting times, as we now need to consider hiring more staff, but taking steps like this is always scary—you’re committing to bigger monthly overheads.

12 p.m. I always use Friday afternoons as a tidy-up and planning day.

When you have your own business you have to be prepared to be involved in all areas of it. I’m also quite optimistic, and that always helps if you’re an entrepreneur. You can’t get down when something awful happens or things don’t go as expected. Just stay positive and passionate about what you do.

5 p.m. Leave the office at a reasonable time!

Photos by Adrienne Pitts

Seven years ago, Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown was living a very different life. A professional soccer player in New Zealand, Brown was on the brink of retirement from the game with only an inkling of what might come next. But that inkling became a product that is the backbone of a reportedly $1.4 billion business.

While playing soccer, Brown found himself yearning for a sneaker that was simpler than the ones he wore on the field—one that was as straightforward in its design as it was to manufacture. As it turned out, it didn’t exist. Could Brown create one?

“I literally went on Google, found a shoe factory, and visited it in the middle of one of my off-seasons, just because I was curious,” Brown told Benjamin Landy, senior editor at Vanity Fair’s The Hive, during a recent talk at Made by We in New York. “This whole thing really started as a curiosity project—to solve a problem that was only my own.”

Enter Allbirds, which in just three short years has spearheaded the direct-to-consumer (DTC) retail disruption. For Brown and his co-founder, biotechnology engineer Joey Zwillinger, less has always been more. The sneaker startup launched with just one product (its now-signature Wool Runners) largely composed of one material (wool) sourced from Brown’s native New Zealand. It didn’t release a second shoe until a year later, and a third and fourth a year after that. Today, Allbirds has grown to more than 200 employees, moving into a 13,000-square-foot headquarters in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood last fall.

Brown says none of this would be possible if Allbirds hadn’t committed to simplicity from the beginning. But no matter what stage a business is in, entrepreneurs can incorporate that mind-set into their own operations. Here’s how.

Benjamin Landy (left) and Tim Brown (right) pose together after their discussion about building Allbirds’s business from the ground up.

Seek answers to simple questions. Brown stumbled into the world of footwear when he wondered why the simplest things were the way they were—and wasn’t satisfied by the responses he received.

“I started asking really, really simple questions, and no one could give me a good answer, like, ‘What’s a size 9?’ ‘Well, it depends. It’s different for Adidas and it’s different for Nike,’” he remembers. “I was going down this rabbit hole of understanding the industry through fresh eyes.”

Brown claims that his and Zwillinger’s inexperience became a competitive advantage as they worked to clarify some of the more convoluted aspects of traditional footwear, like, yes, sizing.

Don’t overcomplicate gut decisions. Before teaming up with Zwillinger, Brown enrolled in a 10-week entrepreneurship course at Northwestern University, where he began to hone his idea for a wool sneaker. His professor wasn’t convinced by the concept but, witnessing Brown’s drive, encouraged him to pursue it.

“‘For whatever reason, of all the other 50 young people in this class, you seem to be driven to try to solve this particular problem, so you should throw it out into the world,’” Brown recalls him saying.

That gut-check led Brown to move past his initial doubts, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with Zwillinger that the pair decided to build Allbirds full-time. They made the decision to launch the company over the course of just one weekend spent together in San Francisco.

“It was one of those quick decisions—usually the best ones are,” says Brown. “We made that decision without raising any money, but we decided that the vision was big and we wanted it to have a maximum impact.”

Live or die by doing one or two things exceptionally well. In retail, the direct-to-consumer experience is all about specialization. Allbirds brand launched with just one shoe and sold that same one shoe for the first 14 months. To even get to that point, though, Brown recalls the product going through “more than 200” tweaks and variations.

“That insane focus is probably something more akin to a specialist butcher, or a florist, or a cheesemonger,” he says. “We were coming in to solve a particular problem and we were going to curate our experience in a very, very specific way. We were going to live and die by that solution.”

Do more by delegating. When Allbirds raised its first round of funding in 2015 and the company began to scale, Brown and Zwillinger were still touching every nook and cranny of the business, from answering phones to packing shipments. That couldn’t last.

“The idea is that you hire really smart people who know what they’re doing better than you, and you’ve got to somehow find a way to do more by letting go,” says Brown. “I think anyone who’s been through that process probably finds it a little bit hard. “

Make business decisions simply because they’re the right thing to do. Allbirds’ shoes are sustainably crafted throughout every step of the process, from the Merino wool that’s sheared in New Zealand to the final pair of shoes that hit the shop floor. But Brown argues that’s hardly the most interesting thing about the company.

“Don’t make a sustainable product. Make a great product and make it as sustainable as possible, and look for the competitive advantages where you can do that,” says Brown. With the reality of climate change, Brown believes businesses must be part of the solution by finding better ways to make the things we use. “If we can put a man on the moon, we can find a way to make a T-shirt more sustainably.”

Get comfortable with the word “no.” Brown attributes the brand’s success to saying no to “97 percent of things”—97 percent of opportunities and partnerships and meetings and coffees—so as not to stray from the path he and Zwillinger forged back in 2015.

On the micro level, that includes setting up boundaries between their work and the rest of their lives. Particularly because both co-founders are new fathers, this has been of utmost importance as Allbirds has scaled. “There’s always going to be too many things on your to-do list, says Brown. “Work out which ones you should be doing and give it your best shot throughout the week. When it comes to the end of the day on Friday, park it. Try to keep something that’s very, very complicated very, very simple.”

Photos by Liz Devine/The We Company